Friday, January 11, 2019

Get the picture, Emanuel Administration

Opinion By Tim Hadac
Managing Editor
Southwest Chicago Post

Since the Southwest Chicago Post was founded in early 2012, we have brought news of crime--large and small--to the people of the Southwest Side.

That's important, we know you agree, because folks want to know what's going on. Where the garage break-ins are occurring. Where the home and business burglaries are happening. Details about robberies, batteries and assaults.

Folks also want to know about people charged with crimes--who they are, where they're from and what they look like.

That last bit of detail--what they look like--requires a mugshot.

And that can be important beyond simply satisfying folks' curiosity. Printing mugshots in newspapers, showing mugshots on TV and posting mugshots online in publications like the Southwest Chicago Post has, on occasion over the years, resulted in everything from apprehension of deadbeat dads to arrests of accused murderers.

Post a mugshot, and every now and then someone seeing it will have an "Aha!" moment and call police.

But not anymore. At least, not in Chicago.

You see, the Chicago Police Department has decided to no longer post mugshots of people they arrest for misdemeanor crimes--in other words, for the vast majority of arrests they make.

And when we say "misdemeanor," please don't think we're talking about a guy who steals a pack of gum from a store.

These days, "misdemeanor" often includes burglary, robbery, assault, battery and domestic battery, weapons violations, you name it. People often charged with violent crimes.

So now, instead of seeing what people charged with crimes look like, we'll see something like this:

Reminder, as always: people charged with crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

So why would the Chicago Police Department suddenly stop posting mugshots?

A CPD spokesman told me that "the state law changed on January 1st prohibiting the release of certain information on misdemeanor offenses. We had to scrub the database to ensure that it is in compliance with the new laws."

When I asked what law he was referring to, he said he could not recall at that moment.

What I assume he was referring to is a change to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Previously--and still, I emphasize--the Illinois FOIA requires law enforcement agencies to routinely furnish information about men and women they arrest--including for misdemeanor crimes. That information, the Act says, is to include the arrestee's name, age, address and mugshot, as well as time and location of the arrest, criminal charges filed and a few other details.

What was amended is whether law enforcement agencies may post mugshots on their "social media websites," according to language added to the Illinois FOIA.

The exception is they may post--on social media platforms-- mugshots of people accused of felonies or people who are wanted for crimes but who remain at large.

The new legislation apparently only prohibits law enforcement agencies from posting mugshots on social media platforms--Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.--not their websites.

That's not just my opinion. That's the opinion of attorneys at the Illinois Press Association and elsewhere. And they confirmed that for me today.

I told that to the Chicago Police Department spokesman I communicated with.

I told him I was seeking an on-record statement from CPD on its interpretation of the law and why mugshots are no longer available.

Told him my deadline was 5 p.m. Monday, January 7.

The deadline came and went. No response at all from CPD.

Whatever. Welcome to the Emanuel Administration, right?

Anyway, here's my view: a mugshot represents a public act performed by a publicly-funded government agency enforcing laws designed to protect the public. Therefore, they may and should be disseminated by law enforcement agencies, routinely and in a responsible manner.

If you think it's important that the Chicago Police Department routinely release mugshots and all basic information required under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, do something about it.

Get ahold of the mayoral candidate you support and find out if she/he is aware of this situation and has a commitment to put things right, to ensure that CPD is releasing the right amount of information about accused criminals, routinely and in a timely manner. Show them this editorial, if you will.

I think you agree that ordinary citizens like us need all the help we can get--within reason--to confront and thwart crime. For lawmakers and police departments to whittle away at that and withhold information is unacceptable, in my view. And yours, too, I hope.


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